This is part of BORDER LINES, a Motherboard series about burner phones and human smuggling in the US-Mexico borderlands. Follow along here.
In late 2010, environmentalist A.J. Schneller awoke pre-dawn to check the surf that peeled before his beachfront condo. Schneller lived in California's Imperial Beach, the southwestern-most city in the western United States. The location provided stunning sunsets and ocean vistas, but its direct proximity to the US-Mexico border also offered a unique set of scenes.
Schneller had seen migrants jump from smuggling boats, wade to shore, and run into the streets of his small beach town. He'd seen Border Patrol agents detain swimmers suspected of having circumnavigated a "sea fence" that extended the border barrier into the Pacific. On the beach, clothing and trash dumped by crossers was a daily sight.
But what Schneller caught emerging from underneath the waves that morning was entirely new to him.
"I was tripping," Schneller said, "enough to pick up my camera."
A man in a wetsuit simply appeared in the shore break, just thirty feet from Schneller's balcony. He carried something the shape of a small torpedo. An avid diver, Schneller quickly recognized it as a personal submersible device—a mini-sub that the man had used to travel below the ocean surface. On the beach, the crosser withdrew a plastic bag, and from that, a cell phone. He made a call, stashed the submersible in some large jetty rocks, and walked into town.
Methods for crossing are most often shaped by the very defenses erected to stop crossing in the first place.
Four years after passage of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for building 700 miles of barrier wall along the southern US border to thwart illegal drug and human trafficking, it was clear that the unprecedented surge in border enforcement had pushed illegal immigration routes from border cities into remote wilderness areas and onto the high seas. But in an indication of things to come, crossing techniques were being pushed into new realms of innovation as well.
US Customs and Border Protection, which boasts one of the largest law enforcement presences along the nearly 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, says it is most often forced to play defense when it comes to illegal migration. Yet the tactical position Border Patrol, a subset of CBP, assumes may not be against individual migrants or even smugglers. It's against creativity itself.
I first became interested in ever-changing migration techniques around 2000. In the late 1990s, I'd visited the town of Puerto Escondido in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and over the course of my stay, I'd made local friends. One of them was a young surfer who got by begging for pesos or food on the popular beachfront. So it was a mild shock when, a year or so later, I ran into him on a busy, upscale street corner in San Diego, California—1,600 miles from his home.
I asked how he'd gotten there. I was thinking along the lines of food and travel money. But my friend said, "I paddled."
It took me a moment to realize that he hadn't stroked the entire distance from Oaxaca, but simply around the sea fence at Imperial Beach. In this instance, he'd used the one tool he knew well: a surfboard.
It might be argued that my friend's crossing occurred before the current era of hyper-surveillance at the border, but looked at from another vantage, his technique indicated that with increased enforcement, poor migrants would be inspired to innovate. Since reuniting with my surfer friend, I've been fascinated by techniques all classes of migrants use to evade detection and game the border: in little submarines, homemade boats, and the trunks of cars. Through tunnels, culverts, and sewage pipes. With ladders of wood, rope, or people. On Jet Skis, on horses, on bicycles.
And here's what I've learned: Methods for crossing are most often shaped by the very defenses erected to stop crossing in the first place.
The history of crossing without documentation begins, of course, with walking. Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California's Spanish mission system, passed from Baja California, the northwestern-most state of Mexico, into Alta California through canyons that are used by smugglers to this day.
And yet, trekking through the borderlands is still a complex, dangerous, and, in some instances, surprisingly inventive enterprise. To interdict foot traffic, Border Patrol now makes use of laser trip wires, seismic sensors, infrared cameras, and non-lethal drones equipped with technology developed to detect insurgents in the caves of Afghanistan. But one of the strongest tools in the Border Patrol's arsenal is one of the oldest: "sign cutting."
By assessing disturbances in the environment—footprints, broken twigs, overturned rocks—Border Patrol trackers can gather an impressive amount of information and then use it to detain crossers and charge professional guides. Smugglers understand this, and have devised techniques like strapping carpet or large blocks of foam to their feet in order to obscure impressions made by walking. In this way, specific cases can present mysteries to even seasoned trackers.
I met with one such tracking expert and, on condition of anonymity, the Border Patrol agent described a scenario that had her and her colleagues stumped for some time. In a popular corridor east of San Diego, they repeatedly came upon stretches of desert that looked as if a funnel or wind devil had set down and annihilated any trace of animal or insect traffic on the sandy floor. They knew people were crossing in this area, they just couldn't understand how the act could be accomplished without a footprint.
Eventually the agents decided to "lay in"—to hide and wait—for whatever had created this scene. At some point in the reconnaissance, the agent heard migrants coming in from the south, and then another, mechanized noise in the distant north.
"Initially, I thought it was a dirt bike because they used those in that area also," the agent said.
Even when the sound was completely audible, the agents couldn't gauge what was making it. Finally, a man hefting something sizable on his back came into view. It was a leaf blower. As those on foot walked into the US, the agent realized, the man with the blower retraced their steps, wiping out any traces of them having crossed, before disappearing back into Mexico and avoiding capture.
To combat open crossing along the US-Mexico border, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has made the building of "the greatest wall that you've ever seen "a prime tenet of his campaign. This, despite a recent Pew poll that suggested more Mexicans are returning to Mexico than are crossing into the US.
Forget, for a moment, the broader history of failed walls—the walls of Troy, Hadrian's Wall, the Great Wall of China. The recent past of our own national barriers might reveal the effectiveness of such a structure.
In 2011, just two years after the Tijuana section of an 18-foot steel and concrete "triple fence" was completed, I traveled to a Mexican neighborhood called Colonia Libertad to see what had come of it. This was a unique location, because I stood next to the old corrugated steel boundary erected under President Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, as well as adjacent a house that happened to rely on the Gatekeeper structure for its back wall. I technically stood in my own country. That's because the barrier had been set three feet short, or north of the dividing line between the two countries, so that American workers could build and repair the wall from the "Mexican" side without diplomatic permissions.
I learned this, ironically, from the matriarch of the Gatekeeper home, who stood with her grandchildren and peered over at the shiny new Secure Fence Act construction. She joked that, with the way her bed was situated, she slept with her head in America and her feet squarely in Mexico.
Two years on, and the wall was riddled with more patch jobs than a pair of hobo pants. It appeared that "transnational actors," as legal scholars call smugglers, had somehow jumped the Gatekeeper wall with welding equipment, crossed a hundred yards in the open, passed over the sealed, all-weather Border Patrol road, evaded detection by camera towers, and cut holes in a fence that cost upwards of $4 million per mile to build. As suggested by the number of metal patches, at some point, it must have been effective.
The Secure Fence Act of 2006 called for more than walls, however. It called for surveillance. Smugglers and migrants often meet challenges posed by surveillance technology with decidedly low-tech solutions. Sometimes the weather and environment help. Frequent sea fogs disable surveillance equipment when molecules of water create atmospheric noise. Infrared equipment, laser sensors, and even flood lights go blind. As a former smuggling guide based out of Playas de Tijuana told me, "Border Patrol might as well pack it in for the night."
Technology has its limits. The boundary's network of over 12,800 seismic sensors buried in the ground can be tripped by anything from tumbleweed to deer and rabbits. And as only 4 percent of their signals can be linked to illegal activity, while 34 percent are known to be false alarms and a whopping 62 percent caused by undetermined sources, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2012, the sensors are not trusted by rank-and-file enforcement officers.
While researching my book, The Coyote's Bicycle, I learned that at least one human smuggler built an entire operation with bikes because seismic sensors apparently aren't calibrated to pick up the smooth roll of a bike ridden by a migrant or coyote.
Still, there are some indications that smugglers are beginning to meet high-tech surveillance with equitable responses. Mexican drug and human traffickers have used "spoofing" technologies to disrupt or disable GPS systems aboard the unmanned US drones that watch the border, Defense One reports. The manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles are grappling with this sort of jamming problem. And on the flipside, the discovery of a downed drone that had been saddled with bags of methamphetamine near San Ysidro, California, which shares the border with Tijuana, Mexico, suggests that smugglers are willing to take to the skies as well.
Though evidence of hacking and escalating use of technology on the part of so-called transnational actors is harder to come by, the same basic equations that define the entire enterprise suggest that it is only a matter of course that the "bad guys" get tech-savvy. Border academic Peter Andreas outlines the case in his book Border Games: Policing the U.S. Mexico Divide.
Governmental prohibitions against marketable goods and services, like alcohol and gambling, Andreas posits, instantly create lucrative markets for those goods and services. That prohibitions, in other words, actually create the smugglers themselves. When it is foreign, low-wage labor that is prohibited, the insatiable nature of that market turns all seekers of work into self-smugglers, and borderland entrepreneurs into coyotes. And the more resources the government puts into enforcing the prohibition, the more valuable the market becomes. That surplus of cash is likely to go back into the business in the forms of further innovation and better equipment and technology.
The very nature of enforcing the prohibition fuels and inspires creativity and changing tactics. And to some extent, enforcement jobs rely on creative smugglers for their existence.
A.J. Schneller wasn't fast enough with his camera to click an image of the migrant who piloted his mini-sub onto the shores of Imperial Beach, which was a shame. But he didn't have to wait long before the migrant's accomplice arrived to fetch the submersible device from the jetty rocks.
This man Schneller was able to capture. The associate had brought a plastic bag to stuff his equipment in, and he waited until it seemed he was alone before retrieving the device. A couple of months later, in February of 2011, two foreign nationals in wetsuits were caught with self-propelled dive scooters. News reports seemed to laugh off the pluck of these migrants, pointing out that the scooters cost a few hundred dollars and could be bought on Amazon.
But in September of 2011, US Border Patrol agents detected half-a-dozen such migrants, captured one, and withdrew a drowned man from the surf. Shortly after the ring of submersible smugglers seemed routed came an explosion of migrant traffic via Jet Skis. Migrants came ashore as far away as Orange County, California, and arrests at sea tripled over previous years.
Enforcement agents have compared border protection to squeezing a balloon: clamp down in one area and the mass only shifts to another point. But smugglers have referred to border barriers and the installment of surveillance technologies as nothing more than "smoke and mirrors." Faced with the raising of ever more border fencing, a former migrant guide said, "The [American] president is all the time trying to pull down the Sun with his finger."